The Science of Reinvention: How Alex Mahon Is Making History With Channel 4

Manori Ravindran

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Regardless of whom you ask in the U.K. television industry, the astronomical feat of expanding public service broadcaster Channel 4 outside the safety of its edgy, central London home and across three new locations in various corners of the country could only have been carried out by Alex Mahon — a would-be astronaut turned supersonic television executive.

Mahon, chief executive of the “Leaving Neverland” and “The Circle” broadcaster across the pond, discusses high-energy physics as if she’s delivering a Starbucks order. She’s attended space camps in Russia, South Korea and Japan; worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research; and has a doctorate in medical physics. If anything has brought her down to Earth, it’s television.

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“You could say it took me quite a long time to work out what I like doing, or you could say I know a lot about physics,” says the London-born Scot, who explains that she decided against a career in science because “seeing the impact of what you did was too far away.”

Mahon, this year’s recipient of Variety’s Intl. Achievement in Television Award, prefers to see change up close. Often, she’s the vector of change.

The 46-year-old became the first female chief executive in the broadcaster’s 38-year history in October 2017 — a role she quietly secured after two years as CEO of VFX tech firm the Foundry. Prior to that, she ran Shine Group for eight years — first with Elisabeth Murdoch and then on her own.

Mahon took the reins of Channel 4 from ex-advertising executive David Abraham just as the publicly-owned, commercially funded broadcaster was advised by the U.K. government, after years of tense volleying, to relocate outside its £100 million ($129 million) Victoria digs.

“We’re doing a difficult thing moving to a multi-site organization and having to work out how to become digital-first,” says Mahon. “But Channel 4 is really good at innovation and change. It’s not an organization that’s good at staying still and doing nothing.”

Neither, it seems, is Mahon, whom Murdoch, her former boss at Shine, calls the “sharpest intellect in TV.”

“She has incredibly broad shoulders for work and she’s an unbelievable executive,” says Murdoch, now a close friend. “Her capacity to get things done and be really thorough, while having fun doing it, is a remarkable quality.”

Both Murdoch and Mahon have appeared in contenders lists for the big BBC director general job, soon to be vacated by Tony Hall. Murdoch laughs off her inclusion as “setting the cat among the pigeons,” insisting that Mahon is “by far the best candidate.”

But asked whether she’s in the running, Mahon says she’s “very committed” to Channel 4, with “lots still to do.” However, questioned about the role on two separate occasions by Variety, she’s never actually said “no.”

It would be the second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the executive.

Joining Murdoch had been a “super risky” move, says Mahon, whose first job after getting her doctorate was in internet consulting, helping banks and retailers set up their first web shops in the 1990s internet boom. She then landed at Germany’s RTL Group, which “needed someone who knew about the internet,” before embedding in television in a strategy role at RTL-owned “Got Talent” franchise producer-distributor Fremantle and, subsequently, one of its production businesses, Talkback Thames.

“Shine had been growing, but it wasn’t a massive company,” she says. “I was pregnant with my first child, so it was risky to leave a well-paid, stable job and go to a much more volatile, start-up environment.”

But it was “love at first sight” for Murdoch, who had been encouraged by contacts to meet with Mahon, and virtually hired her on the spot as COO.

“We were thinking about how to launch international scripted shows, and how to make ‘MasterChef’ into a format that could travel the world, which people said we could never do,” says Mahon. “There was a spirit of thinking if we had the right energy and worked really hard, we would work it out.”

Mahon, who had four children during her Shine tenure, was integral in a “game-changing” $200 million acquisition of Ben Silverman’s “Ugly Betty” producer Reveille in 2008.

“We were there making presentations to bankers on the West Coast and juggling the deal and putting the financing in place,” Murdoch says. “When you know someone’s got your back and one plus one equals 10 and not two in terms of how we work together, that was a turning point in our relationship and for the company.”

When Murdoch stepped down in 2012, Mahon led the company as CEO for its final three years before the Endemol merger.

At that point, Mahon, who speaks devotedly of Shine but not without fatigue, was keen to do something “completely different,” and was lured as CEO to the Foundry, a “really hardcore” tech business whose software made the VFX possible for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Mahon hadn’t finished the job there, she admits, but when recruiters came calling for the Channel 4 chief executive role, “it was tugging on my heartstrings every day,” she says.

Set up by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982 to split up the duopoly of public broadcaster BBC and commercial broadcaster ITV, Channel 4 is legally required to champion alternative points of view and reflect the country’s diversity.

“It’s the dream organization because it’s got purpose seeping out of every pore. It stands for LGBT rights, diverse communities and feminism,” says Mahon.

Now one of Mahon’s history-making achievements is the broadcaster’s expansion to a northern national headquarters in Leeds, as well as newly opened regional hubs in Bristol and Glasgow.

There’s been “complexity” in the redistribution of employees, she notes, highlighting around 100 redundancies, “which is quite significant because we’re a small organization of just 800-900 people.”

But the most radical change is “having a set of different people with different backgrounds who live in different places, rather than risking a mono-culture,” Mahon says. All the more important, too, given the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union.

It’s this attitude that’s made all the difference, says Expectation Ent. co-CEO Peter Fincham, who hired Mahon at Talkback Thames more than 15 years ago.

“There was absolutely no point in Channel 4 assuming a defensive stance and saying, ‘We don’t want to [relocate].’ The Leeds headquarters is important because it removed the sense that Channel 4 was at odds with regulators. That was a smart move,” says Fincham.

Mahon’s most dire challenge, however, is a philosophical one: dusting off the broadcaster’s clunky catch-up AVOD service All 4 and sparking a digital revolution to compete with the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus.

John McVay, chief executive of U.K. producers’ trade body Pact, worked closely with Mahon in a new terms of trade deal in June that allows Channel 4 to exploit commissioned programs across its channels and All 4 without negotiating further rights.

In return, independent producers — who contribute 100% of Channel 4 content — can exploit secondary revenue from international and a second window in the U.K.

“That gives her flexibility on assets and allows her to get those eyeballs,” says McVay. “It was a major thing because we had been at an impasse with Channel 4 for at least five years previously.”

The broadcaster’s most recent figures, for 2018, show 19.6 million registered viewers for All 4 — an 18% year-on-year spike. Meanwhile, digital revenues hit a record $177 million, an 11% increase on 2017 that constituted around 14% of Channel 4’s total $1.2 billion in corporate revenue. “It’s about continuing this switch over the next few years until we’re a completely digital-first organization,” says Mahon.

Between a digital and physical expansion and continuously pushing the content offering with punchy formats such as catfishing reality show “The Circle” and a reinvented “Great British Bake Off,” Mahon, by the time she’s done, will have reinvention down to a science.

“There aren’t any transferable skills from a career in physics,” she says. “It’s just adding up and being logical. But you can’t underestimate that.”

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